Churning out a steady stream of catchy garage-psych nuggets as if he were the unlikely bastard child of Jack White and Kurt Cobain, Ty Segall has built an international reputation as a leading light for the SF scene. However, after songwriter Mikal Cronin's eponymous solo debut comes out on Trouble in Mind Records this September, Segall may find himself sharing the spotlight with his his longtime friend and collaborator. The bassist-singer for Orange County garage-surf favorites The Moonhearts and a sometime member of Segall's live band (the two musicians also recorded a raucous lo-fi collection of songs, Reverse Shark Attack), Cronin steps into his own with a stunning collection of songs that offers a heady mix of lushly harmonized vocals, earworm melodies, raw fuzz guitar, and fractured kitchen-sink arrangements. All Shook Down caught up with Cronin via phone following a rehearsal in L.A. this week to discuss the new album and his busy plans for this Sunday, when he'll play two shows with both The Moonhearts and his new band at the Hemlock Tavern as part of Total Trash Fest 3.
In the process of setting up this interview, I realized after the fact last week that I was like five feet from you as you played bass with Ty Segall at Outside Lands because I was taking pictures.
I used to play with him a couple of years back. I guess the very first show he played at the Smell in L.A. I was playing bass and then two summers ago I played bass on a U.S. tour with him. But he's up in San Francisco and I was living down in L.A. going to school. So I just graduated, that's why I'm now playing bass with him once again, which is awesome.
How was your experience at the festival?
We just went for Sunday because we were out of town the days before, but I saw John Fogerty and he was amazing.
I loved that he didn't play "Centerfield" and stuck to the CCR classics.
I was blown away. It was perfect -- that's exactly what I wanted to hear. It was what everyone wanted to hear. He sounded great. He was switching guitars every song. It was awesome. I don't go to festivals very often so I don't see that kind of thing very much. We stuck around to try to see Gallagher smash the watermelons. And we saw some of the other bands like the Decemberists and Arcade Fire. It was really fun.
Many of the songs on the album come across as things that grew out of simple stripped down songwriting with acoustic guitar. What was the process of coming up with material?
I wrote the whole record while I was going to school north of L.A. in this little town called Val Verde. It was a stressful time, and I just focused on writing songs in my room with the guitar. Just hashing out demos and stuff. I felt very isolated. There was a bunch of other weird shit going on in my life and at the time it was what made me happy. It was a way to relax, just staying up all night.
So you haven't been squirreling away songs for a few years? It was mostly from one period of songwriting?
Yeah, it was pretty concentrated. I had been thinking about it and thinking about what kind of songs I wanted to make. And doing ... not research, but listening to a lot of music. I get really bad writer's block, but all of a sudden two months before I recorded I started making all these songs. It all came pretty quick. Within a month or two, I guess.
As far as what ended up on the finished album, were those all demos that were re-recorded, or were you able to layer instrumentation on top of the original demos?
No I recorded pretty much the whole thing with Ty and Eric Bauer up in San Francisco at Eric's little studio. There's that one song with the pump organ ["Slow Down"] I recorded that in my living room in Val Verde. But that was the only one. The other songs I just had demos for. I was really glad I got to record with Eric and Ty. I had the whole thing laid out in my mind before I went to the studio way better than I imagined.
You and Ty have worked together in a number of capacities, between the Reverse Shark Attack album and you playing live with him. Was he a collaborator on the new album as far as playing or co-writing tunes, or did he stick to more of a traditional producer role as far as figuring out arrangements or what instrumentation would go with each song?
There was a little bit of that. I had a pretty clear idea when I went in there. I say producer, but he was mostly support. He's a dude I really trust to bounce ideas off and him being like "Yeah, that's awesome" or "No, that's not." We think in the same way musically.
What did he play on it?
He played drums on a fair amount of the tracks. He's a much better drummer than me. I'm glad he was there. It's fun recording with him.
In listening to this album and other stuff you've done, there's a lot of unorthodox recording methods as far as sort of incorporating the start and stop of the tape rolling into the song. They're the kind of things people usually go out of their way to make sure don't end up on an album, but they really give some of the songs character. Are those things you've learned up with Ty while recording, or were they things the engineer came up with?
I don't know. I guess it's a combination. In most of Ty's recordings, he has a tendency to turn the echo all the way up all of a sudden and space everything out and really make a lot of weird noise. Sometimes it seems necessary to get a little weird, and that's a fun way to get a little psychedelic weirdness into recordings [laughs]. It just kind of happens. It's not really pre-planned out. Whenever we're jamming together and bouncing ideas off each other sometimes that kind of warble-y noise mess blob will just kind of happen.
How did [Thee Oh Sees'] John Dwyer get involved, and what did he do on the album?
He plays the flute on the first song on the record, "Is It Alright." The flute solo at the end. I was up in San Francisco and John and Ty are good friends. We went and got a taco together and I just asked what he was doing that day and if he would be down to come and lay down a flute solo at the studio [laughs] and he was free. I'm really glad he agreed to do it because I pictured a flute solo and I don't play flute.